By Penny Valentine
The most exciting new band to break from the States this year is Steely Dan.
Can’t Buy A Thrill is the lie of a title they chose for their first album. By parting with your hard earned currency and acquiring this collection you are faced with a combination of startling and – and not the least – highly pleasing music. Complex, but still direct enough to land gently round the ears; smooth without being laid back in cotton wool… Steely Dan prove that you CAN buy a thrill and a lot more besides.
So who are they – these tinglers whose name was born from a chapter in William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch and who treat interviews with a kind of tongue in cheek cynicism? They have, in fact, been around quite a time (maybe that explains it!)
Six guys – Walter Becker, Donald Fagen, Dave Palmer, Jeff Baxter, James Hodder and Denny Dias – formed themselves into Steely after years of playing as session musicians on the East Coast, and various stints playing back up across country for Jay and the Americans. A period which Becker and Fagen describe fluently as: “A long horrible time – more or less images of toilets interspersed with arenas.”
It’s Becker and Fagen that are really the backbone of Dan.
It’s their work as songwriters – stemming from their time together at college – that the rest of the band are only too glad to enthuse about. According to guitarist Denny Dias, who I spoke to last week, around 2 a.m. Los Angeles time, he had such faith in Becker and Fagen’s genius he “hung around for two years doing odd jobs like being a car wash boy” until the band looked likely to be formed and he was summoned out to the West Coast to join up.
“I met Donald and Walter back in ’69 and recognised straight away they were real geniuses. At that time they were trying to sell themselves to someone who would put money behind them – like a record company. But nobody was interested until Gary Kannon got to Dunhill.
“When we started together there was no real reason to call it a band as such. There was no money to hire proper equipment, or a place to rehearse. There was all this potential but nothing happened until last year. Believe me it was pretty frustrating getting your hopes high each day and then nothing happening”.
With some of the band culled from an amazing East Coast set up under the auspices of “The Ultimate Spinach” – described by Denny, as: “One of those groups whose leader was taking them through a ‘spiritual trip’ of loud noise” – Steely Dan as a unit finally broke the fate barrier and got into the studio late last year.
“We went into the studio in early September and three weeks after that the album was finished. I guess the people who say it sounds thrown together are right – it was. Equally the ones who like it – well I guess it’s fairly decent by any standards. Really we had just started learning to play together at that time.”
If Dias’ conversation isn’t exactly exuding the ultimate in breathless enthusiasm then really it’s because he feels that having finally broken into the recording complexes and got some finance behind them the next Steely Dan album will show what they’re really about.
“I guess I am a perfectionist but Can’t Buy A Thrill is the worst album we’ll ever make. Some of the songs on the album were written years ago and I think the older stuff tended to be stronger. I think Donald and Walter wrote the other numbers – the more commercial stuff – to get the record companies interested. I’ve always felt the writing was better on the more sophisticated numbers like ‘Turn That Heartbeat’ and ‘Fire In The Hole’. That’s going to be the bone of tone of the next album.
“For me this band is the end of two years of hanging around. I had faith in this band finally coming together, but to tell he truth I was just about ready to give up the waiting when they phoned and said come out to LA.”